Kevin Nolan is not a name that will go down in West Ham folklore. This is perhaps down to an instinctive association with Sam Allardyce, and certainly with a less than memorable final season at the club in mind. The former captain left the club in August 2015, just two league games into Slaven BIlic’s tenure.
But, after now more than two years with Bilic and without Nolan, it’s clear that the latter’s leadership and knack for a big goal is something the club could do with now. Yes, 2017 West Ham could learn a great deal from what Kevin Nolan brought to the club.
With a new manager and the promise of a new higher-tempo, attack-minded style, the time was probably right for Nolan to take a step back from regular first-team duties. Upon his departure, few fans were too upset to see the back of him. Then 33, with his legs not what they once were, Nolan had endured a disappointing final season in 2014/15. While the team’s early promise quickly descended into misery, Nolan had managed just one goal all campaign.
It would be most unfair to remember Nolan just for what that year ultimately became. It’s been quickly forgotten that the Liverpudlian was our top scorer in both of our first two seasons back in the top flight. In fact, Diafra Sakho was the only other Hammer to reach double figures in the league under Big Sam. Before using this as just a stick to beat Big Sam with, it’s also worth remembering that only 10 players have scored more goals in the Premier League for West Ham than Nolan, who played just three seasons at the top level for the club.
With a characteristic eye for goal in the box, Nolan loved the improvised, almost-overhead hook shot (a unique effort that was rather more graceful than it sounded). Nolan knew intuitively where to position himself in the box, and got almost all of his Premier League goals for West Ham with either first-or second-time finishes.
Nolan also mastered the art of playing off the target-man. Just 53 seconds into Andy Carroll’s West Ham career, the pair linked up with Nolan scoring a left-footed effort against Fulham. He had an uncanny knack for getting on the end of a Carroll knock-down. The Geordie was directly involved for seven of Nolan’s 18 Premier League goals for West Ham. This is actually a rather impressive haul, especially when you consider how often Carroll was injured and Nolan had to play without him. (Who can forget Allardyce playing Nolan up front on his own for a spell when it got really bad?)
So why doesn’t he get the love? Part of the reason could be based around his near-synonymous association with Allardyce, for whom he made 232 league appearances at Bolton, before joining him at both Newcastle and West Ham. He captained all three clubs.
Nolan is practically the archetypal Big Sam player, a statement which, in its own ability to be interpreted as either praise or criticism (it is surely somewhere in between), sums up the feeling that fans never quite took to him fully, despite his strong record as captain.
For instance, his lack of pace would often hinder, especially when needing to play up-tempo against a defensive team. This fuelled fans’ frustration, with the serving up of ambitionless performances against poor opposition at Upton Park characteristic of later-era Big Sam. This was especially aggravating coming during the period of the early 2010s, when the 4-2-3-1 formation and the ‘number 10’ peaked, with his fast, one-touch link-up play, clever runs and defence-splitting passes. By comparison, West Ham and Nolan looked slow and uncreative.
But let’s face it: the West Ham of the last year-and-a-bit have hardly been an up-tempo, clever attacking team – to the extent where Slaven Bilic could now learn a lot from the manner in which Kevin Nolan got his goals.
One of BIlic’s main issues at the moment is that he’s at a bit of a crossroads with Carroll. It’s obvious the Croat wants to play to Andy’s clear threat, sending balls up to him with regularity so far this season. Yet, he also wants to find something that works without him, opting for a faster front three against Spurs, then trying to fit Carroll into that when he came on. His tactics may be uncertain, but what stands out is that Slaven is clearly trying to find the right balance up front.
To find a system that works, he should look to the way Nolan played that behind-the-big-man role. Looking back over his goals, what sticks out is how high Nolan played when West Ham had the ball, practically as a second striker. For the clinching goal in the opening day victory over Cardiff in 2013/14, when Noble laid the ball off after a surprisingly enterprising run, Nolan was in the position of the striker, perfectly placed to curl the ball home (expertly) from 18 yards. Now imagine this is Javier Hernandez, occupying a dangerous space, roaming forward to a central position, and unleashing when the ball comes to him in the box. The stuff of dreams for Bilic.
When we beat Reading on the last day of 2012/13 (I know it’s only Reading), Carroll did something he still does – all the time – to this day. He came short for the ball, flicked it wide and held his position deep. (How many times have fans been left frustrated over the last few years when Carroll does this superb bit of target-man play, but neither he nor anyone else can get into the box for the cross?) Kevin Nolan was there, and planted a simple header in for his hat-trick.
Again, imagine this as Hernandez, a player who knows precisely how to get the run on a defender for a cross into the box. Play him as a ‘high number 10’ like Nolan (is that a thing @Zonal_Marking?) and he should be able to roam into the space vacated by Carroll when he comes for the ball, and fill his boots when the right ball comes in.
In fact, look over all of Nolan’s goals for West Ham, either from clever movement in the box, being in the right place for a knock-down or loose ball, or even from getting on the end of a cross when Carroll has made some space. From the characteristic hook shot against Wigan to the time the two took Swansea apart on Carroll’s return. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, with Chicharito Slaven would have the same clever movement, the same eye for goal, but with the Mexican’s pace, intelligence and finishing ability.
On the face of it, I’m aware that asking Javier Hernandez, with his 48 international goals, to play like Kevin Nolan may sound something akin to David Moyes asking 6-time Premier League champion Rio Ferdinand to study tape of Phil Jagielka. But I think it’s more a question of where Hernandez fits in tactically, especially if Carroll has to be involved. Shoving the Little Pea out wide doesn’t work at all.
This is why it would be wise to learn from the way Nolan got his goals in behind the big man. It could mean reverting to a wider 4-2-3-1 formation, but it would harness Hernandez’s key strengths: off-the-ball movement, penalty box play and goalpoaching. The idea makes even more sense when you consider that for the last year West Ham haven’t played at any faster a tempo, using Carroll as any less of a target man, than the days of Big Sam. For Slaven, it would be a case of layering, rather than redesigning, his offense. As mitigating evidence, we also need to remember Carroll’s poor injury record. But when fit and used correctly, he clearly has the ability to transform the team.
Finally, let’s talk about Nolan’s team leadership. This one’s more a case of the ‘eye test’ of following a game rather than any statistical-based evidence, but the point remains. We are far less tenacious and resilient without Nolan. For instance, his first-rate on-field leadership ability meant we wouldn’t be letting one or two goals conceded cascade into a third or a fourth, at least to the same extend as the post-Allardyce era. He also used to rally the players well at important moments.
I have also spoken many times about lamenting the loss of Nolan’s ‘vocalness’ on the pitch. We talk about Mark Noble as ‘Mr. West Ham’, his captaincy as that of leading by example in terms of commitment. But it’s also OK to admit Nolan was a superior pitch leader, with a particular penchant for getting into the referee’s ear when necessary, to let your opinion be heard, something I admit to believing Noble should be doing too. Nolan, I think, was more of an influence on other players as well.
So I’m not saying he should join the list of West Ham legends. Nor am I saying I wasn’t (often) frustrated with the football he was a part of. But I think it’s time we revised Kevin Nolan’s position within the club’s history, not least because we miss his influence right now. If Bilic is serious about making the Hernandez-Carroll partnership work, he should be looking at how Kevin Nolan top-scored for West Ham two years running.